With the NFL season just a couple weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Kansas City Chiefs, who finished 10–6 in 2017.
1. The only NFL team Andy Reid worked for before the Chiefs and the Eagles was Green Bay, where his job was, in part, to keep gunslinger QB Brett Favre under control. Favre did things that make coaches age in dog years, but he made enough plays to justify it. After spending five years with Alex Smith (the anti-Favre), Reid is ready to live dangerously again, turning Kansas City’s once ultra-conservative passing game over to second-year man Patrick Mahomes.
At Texas Tech, Mahomes was extremely talented but equally undisciplined. Despite playing in the Red Raiders’ quick-strike spread scheme, where the plays are structured for the ball to be thrown almost immediately, Mahomes frequently broke into sandlot mode, trusting that mobility and a big arm would bail him out.
That type of play won’t fly in Reid’s meticulous system, but the Chiefs wisely seem willing to tweak that system for their QB. Knowing Mahomes is an aggressive downfield thrower, they signed speedster Sammy Watkins to pair with the even speedier Tyreek Hill. Factor in stud tight end Travis Kelce and second-year man Kareem Hunt and you have a diverse quartet of mismatch-making receiving threats. This will still be a highly schemed offense and a more dangerous one, at that. Whether that means a more successful offense depends on Mahomes.
2. Hill might be the fastest player in football, but Kelce is this offense’s most valuable non-quarterback. As a receiver he can beat not just safeties and linebackers, but also most cornerbacks, from almost anywhere in the formation. But the real separating factor is Kelce’s blocking, which is as strong as almost any tight end’s when he’s enthused. With 230-pound backup Demetrius Harris having a more limited but equally diverse skill set, the Chiefs can legitimately run or throw out of their multi-tight end packages. That’s why they employed two-or three-tight ends more regularly than any NFL team last year. These packages provoke predictable defensive looks.
3. However the scheme is constructed for Mahomes, expect presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads to be featured. Those are Chiefs staples. They put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but the tactics are conducive to traditional concepts once the ball is snapped. It’s a great way to soften a young QB’s transition to the NFL.
4. Recall last year when the Chiefs started with five wins, then suffered six losses in seven games, followed by four straight wins and then a first-round playoff exit after blowing a 21-3 halftime lead. These ups and downs were almost lock-step with their running game. In victories, the Chiefs rushed for 141 yards an outing; in defeat, 80 yards. That 61-yard difference in wins and losses is 50% greater than the NFL average. When the Chiefs did run the ball, they were more efficient on a per carry basis than every other offense. Considering this, plus their callow QB and defending rushing champ Kareem Hunt’s keen vision and short-area agility, Reid has reason to run the ball more in 2018.
5. You wonder about the state of this defense with Marcus Peters gone. Coordinator Bob Sutton employs a lot of matchup coverages, and last season the Chiefs had continuous trouble getting stops at the corner spot opposite Peters. Many are high on Peters’s de facto replacement, Kendall Fuller, who Kansas City acquired from Washington in the Alex Smith trade. But Washington had an average secondary and Fuller was still just the No. 3 corner. He can stabilize the slot if they ultimately choose to use him there, but quarterbacks won’t avoid throwing at him the way they did Peters.The Chiefs’ other corners are Keith Reaser, Steven Nelson, David Amerson and an aging Orlando Scandrick. All have been inconsistent and yet Kansas City is dependent on at least two of them stepping up.
6. Here’s hoping Eric Berry stays healthy coming off last September’s torn Achilles. It’s not just corners who must cover for Sutton; the box safety is often responsible for matching up to inside vertical routes. The question is whether Berry will even be in this spot. The Chiefs are still figuring out their other starting safety. Though Sutton uses his safeties interchangeably, most of the contenders are more box-oriented players, which might push Berry back to centerfield.
7. Sutton prefers to play with more than just two safeties. Expect him to once again predominantly play a dime package against three-receiver sets, with returning backup safety Eric Murray or, more likely, Daniel Sorensen (who will likely miss the first month of the season with a tibia fracture and torn MCL) aligning at the spot next to free agent linebacker Anthony Hitchens. In this case, Kansas City’s defensive line must achieve more penetration. Too often in dime it has been overpowered on the ground.
8. One reason Chiefs opponents run between the tackles is Justin Houston can make it impossible to get outside. No defender is better at setting the edge and, from there, making the stop. Houston can also drop into coverage, but you could argue that Sutton asks him to do so too often. Last season, according to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs rushed three and dropped eight 21.8 percent of the time, second most in the NFL. Houston still recorded 9.5 sacks, but he should be getting somewhere in the mid-teens.
9. It’s a make-or-break year for Justin Houston’s counterpart, Dee Ford. After erupting as one of the NFL’s quickest edge rushers in 2016, where he played on the left side when Houston was out with a knee injury, Ford battled injuries and disappeared on the right side in 2017. Mississippi edge rusher Breeland Speaks being drafted in Round 2 this year, and Villanova edge man Tanoh Kpassagnon being taken in Round 2 last year suggests the Chiefs are not optimistic about re-signing Ford long-term after this season. But if Ford plays like he did in ’16, GM Brett Veach won’t have a choice.
10. The Chiefs don’t blitz often, but they make it count when they do—especially up the middle. You wouldn’t know it from his 1.5 sack statline, but Sorensen is critical to their interior pressure concepts. Can his early season fill-in, rookie Armani Watt, be viable here?
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